Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and Associate Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. She won the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing and a 2020 Windham Campbell Prize for Fiction. Her first novel, The Old Drift, was published last year. (April 2020)
What’s the difference between good and fun when it comes to art? Good is an egg—a slippery, laden, fragile word. Good works of art aren’t necessarily about good people—in fact, they’re usually not—nor are they necessarily created by them. Fun is a gun—a shiny, blunt, punchy little word—easy to pull, hard to look away from. Fun seems universally appealing, but it can quickly turn cruel.
The idea that art promotes empathy has become a platitude. This idea is particularly prevalent when it comes to those works of art described as “narrative”: stories, novels, TV shows, movies, comics. We assume that works that depict characters in action over time must make us empathize with them, or as the saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes.” And we assume this is a good thing. Why? The slippage between empathy and the good in our public discourse presumes that when we feel the suffering of others, we are prompted to relieve it. But this is not always true.
Many recent women-centered films succumb to lukewarm tokenism, portentous plots, neutered sexuality, and pulled punches both literal (no catfights) and figurative (no misandry). They manage to skirt the usual stereotypes of cattiness, victimhood, hysteria, sluttiness, and so on, but they miss all the depth and contradiction of genuine vice. Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite dispenses with this bind altogether. I have never seen a film like it: a story about three bad women—bad in very different, very interesting ways—whose badness both makes and breaks the relationships between them.
Acting white is the premise of Boots Riley’s raucous new film, Sorry to Bother You. And no one knows better than black people that acting white—putting on the trappings of privilege, speaking as if you belong, as if you deserve to take whatever you want—has always yielded dividends in America. How do you think we got the Huxtables? And acting white is the premise of Boots Riley’s raucous new film, Sorry to Bother You. What tumbles forth from this premise is a wild, campy romp. Indeed, smuggled inside Riley’s rollicking mashup of surrealism and sci-fi is a cutting critique of race and class.
Movies often flatten real African cultures into two-dimensional imagery—stereotypes in stereo, a quilt of clichés. But Wakanda, as everyone keeps reminding us, doesn’t exist. This gave Ryan Coogler free rein to create a country in the subjunctive mode: what if…? Given a blank canvas, he chose to sculpt and embroider various materials, genres, and tones. Black Panther is Shakespeare meets Shaka Zulu, Too $hort in Timbuktu.
This belatedness of the sequel’s future changes the genre of Denis Villeneuve’s new film, Blade Runner 2049. This is not a work of prophetic science fiction. It is an alternative history—tracing out the implications of another timeline. This is perhaps why the layered repetitions in Villeneuve’s film do not build toward a new world, or multiply possibilities forward, but rather double them back, trapping them in an infinite regression of stereotype and allusion.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s magisterial first novel Kintu continually diverts us from our preconceptions about Africa. Despite the generalizing and pigeonholing, African writers are rarely thought to speak to universal questions. But as its two-faced title—man/thing—suggests, Kintu does in fact have a grand philosophical question in mind. The novel forces us to reckon over and again with what it means to be kintu, to be man, or human.
When African writers talk about glossaries, we don’t just exchange tips—How long? How comprehensive? By whom? We talk about whether to include one at all, whether to offer glosses within the text or omit all glossing entirely. To gloss, or not to gloss? That is the question.